Knight of Cups Review
Terrance Malick was once revered as one of the best filmmakers of all time. He made two great movies in the late 1970's and early 1980's. He disappeared again until 1998, then made another great movie in 1998 and one in 2005. "Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line" and even "The New Worlds" are all colossal works of art. Strikingly powerful works of cinematic dream works that showcase an unusual but potent voice in the industry. I wish I could say that about all of his work, but since 2011, he has turned to self-parody. A name that I once got excited about is a name I find myself less and less interested in as the years go by.
In 2011, he made "The Tree of Life," in 2013, he made "To The Wonder" and now in 2016, he has made "Knight of Cups." There is really no need to go through each film individually, I do have a review of "To The Wonder" around here somewhere if you are interested. The thing is, these last three Malick films have been the same exact thing three times. He has made three beautiful movies featuring an overflow of A-list stars. They each revolve around a somber male lead (Brad Pitt/Sean Penn in "Tree of Life," Ben Affleck in "To The Wonder" and now Christian Bale in "Knight of Cups") who wonder around starring in all directions, looking sad. There isn't much speaking by any of the characters in these movies, but roughly three actors a movie have voice-overs for the entire lengths of movies, speaking of philosophy and poetry, trying to make the movies more than they are. These are all gorgeous, but ultimately odd experiences, and after "Knight of Cups," I don't know if I can stand another Malick film in this style.
Christian Bale plays Rick, a screenwriter who ventures into the underbelly's of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, trying to find love and the meaning of life. He tries to find answers within the relationships with a few women (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas and Imogen Poots). While also having memories with his brother (Wes Bentley) and his father (Brian Dennehy). We see Rick interact with these women, and we can kind of see that they all mean something to him. Each section of the film is dedicated to a relationship to one of these women, named after a tarot card. But there is no real connection to the women and the tarot card titlecard. There is no real connection period. Nobody has anything even remotely close to a conversation, there is so much speaking in voice-over that nothing makes a lick of sense. We see that Rick has a dangerous and destructive relationship with his brother and father, but why? Why do they not get along, there are whispers, but nothing in regards to hints or clues. These scenes with Rick's family may not even be memories, but we don't know because there is no explanation.
I did some research after viewing the movie, and I understand that the title "Knight of Cups" comes from a tarot card of the same name. The usage of the Knight of Cups tarot card is pretty simple. If the card is upright, it represents change and new excitements, particularly of a romantic nature. It can mean invitations, opportunities, and offers. The Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He is constantly bored, and in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. He represents a person who is amiable, intelligent, and full of high principles, but a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged. Reversed, the card represents unreliability and recklessness. It indicates fraud, false promises and trickery. It represents a person who has trouble discerning when and where the truth ends and lies begin. So if we look at Bale's character, he seems to find new excitements with every woman he meets, and he seems romantic. He definitely seems bored throughout the entire movie. Never in the film do I see somebody who is the harbinger of ideas, or who is smart, full of opportunity, or a fraud. We never get deep enough into character development to really see the significance of the title to the movie. There is somewhat of something going on, but Malick is too snobby or too overwhelmed to tell a captivating story with his ideas. "Knight of Cups" is just a bunch of ideas with no story to guide them. Unless this is all about Rick being bored, then its a masterpiece.
Its hard to critique the performance by Bale, as he spends most of the movie looking sad. The women also say their voice-overs, give stylized looks then leave. There are several other great actors in the mix, including Antonio Banderas, Jason Clarke, Cherry Jones, Joe Manganiello, Nick Kroll, Ben Kingsley, Dane DeHaan, Joel Kinnaman and Nick Offerman. But I have no way of really judging their performances. They speak, but a voice-over is not allowing us to hear what they say. People show up, pose in a stylized manner and then are never seen again. Nothing of what anybody is saying makes any sense because we don't have a good understanding of what Malick is trying to do. Performances, like the movie itself, is all surface value, with no subtext or context in any form.
The thing is, despite all of the non-story, "Knight of Cups" is beautiful to look at. Much like "The Tree of Life" and "To The Wonder" were. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski has won two Oscars for a reason, and its because he makes images in movies look surreal and like moving pieces of art. We drive through downtown and rural Los Angeles, we stand at several parties, we sink deep into mountains and desert and its all breath-taking. We take it all in because it all feels alive and vivid. The thing is, the cinematography is extra. The movie isn't about the pretty pictures, but the story itself. Unless this is some kind of big joke Malick is pulling on us and the beautiful landscapes are the movie.
"Oh, you just don't understand experimental cinema," I can hear some of you saying. Ok, I'll loose sleep tonight wondering whether or not you're right about that. Even the most experimental of cinema was about something and the best examples of it show that we can see images that evoke powerful emotions and also understand character intentions. It can happen, we can have it both ways. It's just Malick has yet to tell a story with his mega casts and his ideas. I hope one of these days we get them, because I am running out of reasons to be excited for Malick movies anymore.
FINAL GRADE: C-